The words, spoken by an Artificer, sent shivers down her spine, but Tavia kept her back straight and tried not to let it show how badly she just wanted to scream "No!" and run away. She kept her breath slow and steady. She had willingly come back to this place like a fool; hadn't she learned her lesson the day before?
It was just the five of them in the waiting room, and she had a feeling that was exactly what Abram had intended from the beginning. Putting a stop to the argument was just a pretext. With the door solidly shut behind him, there was no reason for anyone to disturb them. The room was silent as they processed his question, and Abram watched them, his expression a mix of concern and curiosity.
There was no way Tavia was going to ask what the favor was. She didn't like this whole thing. She didn't like any of this—where they were, who they were talking to, and she didn't like the way he kept looking at Evos. It was obvious Abram was playing dumb, and he wasn't even doing a good job hiding it. Maybe he wasn't trying to?
"What kind of favor?"
The one who asked was, surprisingly, not Audri. It was Evos. He ignored Tavia's furtive glare with admirable determination, but he wouldn't meet her eyes, choosing to look only in Abram's direction.
"Well, I would need you all to help me protect something. If Tavia knows what Ikarios looks like, that would be a big help, since I myself don't know his appearance."
Hadn't Abram said he knew who Ikarios was? It wasn't as if the boy's appearance was forgettable or anything. She was sure she would remember Ikarios for the rest of her life.
"What kind of thing?" Izak asked.
He looked just as uncomfortable about the situation as Tavia felt. He was still being polite though, something Tavia wasn't quite sure she could manage at the moment.
"Well, that's..." Abram closed his mouth, and for the first time, he showed what might have been genuine discomfort.
"It's something shady, isn't it?" Tavia asked as she folded her arms.
Abram gave her a weak laugh and shook his hands in denial.
"Nothing like that," he said. "It's an approved project. It's separate from the Ageless Sword research, but you could possibly say this is my main line of research. It's just that it's not exactly public knowledge."
"And you want us to help you?" Tavia asked. "You barely know us."
"I have a good feeling about you," Abram replied. "Besides,"—his cold eyes met Tavia's and he smiled—"if the Wardens return, I wouldn't be confident in thinking it's only my work they're after."
Abram's eyes slid from Tavia to Evos behind her. Evos kept his mouth shut this time though.
Why was Abram trying so hard to provoke her? He wanted her help, because she had the Ageless Sword, right? Was it really that important? Sure, there was some weird stuff about the sword, but was it worth involving not just Tavia, but Izak and Audri in whatever messy research he was probably conducting?
Because, at this point, there was no way Audri was going to back down. Her shoulders were practically vibrating as she tried not to interrupt the conversation between Abram and Tavia. She was watching them both, her blue eyes darting back and forth, waiting for a break in the conversation so she could speak.
"I don't think we're the right people for this," Tavia said. "Wouldn't calling in the Shields be better?"
"No," Audri yelped. "Don't call them. That stuffy old man'll show up, and there'll go all the fun."
Stuffy old man? That was her father she was talking about right? Lenore had said Audri was the daughter of the commander of the shields.
"So you want to help?" Abram asked.
His gaze swept across the room as he spoke, making it clear his question included everyone there, even Izak, who looked like he was about to have a nervous breakdown.
Audri nodded eagerly, but when she didn't hear anyone else jumping in to volunteer, she looked at both Izak and Tavia. Tavia did her utmost to convey absolute rejection in her face, and Audri picked up on that at least, so she chose the easier target instead.
"Don't you want to help, Izak?" she asked. "You're training to be an Althiest, right? I'm sure this kind of thing is right up your alley."
Audri turned to Izak, an enthusiastic smile on her face. Izak grimaced, but he didn't say no right away, and that was all Audri needed to continue her attack. While she continued to plead and cajole, Abram turned his full attention on Tavia. He stepped up close to her, close enough he could speak in a quiet voice and not be heard by Audri and Izak who were noisy enough they probably wouldn't have been able to hear him even if he spoke normally.
"It looks like my instincts were right from the beginning," he said. "You were able to wake up the sword."
"How did you know?" Tavia asked. She looked back at Evos. "You knew the moment you saw him.
Abram looked over Evos as if evaluating him. Evos's appearance wasn't normal, his ethereal paleness was too extreme to seem natural, but it wasn't as if it made him look inhuman. He certainly didn't look like a sword.
"Well, there were some references to the consciousness within the sword at the tomb, and also," he smiled, "I have experience in matters like this," he replied. "I never would have guessed a null-aura was the key though." He turned an evaluating eye upon Tavia. "You might be the only person in the city capable of using the sword, possibly all of Marquest if you rule out young children."
"You mean swords turning into people is a common thing for you?" Tavia asked. She wasn't going to respond to that last part; it wasn't something she wanted to think about right now.
"No need to get snide," Abram replied. "It isn't as if I was expecting any of this to happen, but now that it has, I plan to make the most of the situation."
"And what situation are you talking about?" she asked.
She glanced over at Audri and Izak, they were still arguing, though it was growing to be a one-sided affair. The blush on Izak's cheeks proved his loss was imminent.
"The Ageless Sword is very powerful, and there is much too learn from it," Abram said.
"Helping me will be good for you too." He said before she could finish her refusal. "Don't you want to know more about the Ageless Sword?" Abram looked over at Evos. "I'm sure he'd like to know more."
Tavia looked back at Evos, but the man just shrugged. He couldn't possibly have looked less interested in the suggestion.
"It's not like I'm floundering in a sea of lost memories or anything," he said. "There are things I don't know, but they aren't things that bother me. I'll leave this up to you."
Truly, he was so helpful. He was the one who'd asked about the "favor" in the first place, getting Tavia into the situation. Working with an Artificer was at the top of the list of things she'd rather kiss a Scarver than do. They couldn't be trusted. Artificers were always—
"You help me with Ikarios and the Wardens, and I'll help you understand that sword of yours. If I understood that argument from earlier, you want to become a Martial, don't you?" Abram asked.
"The Ageless Sword has the potential, but it would be much easier if you had someone who could help you understand the spells on the sword, right?"
"I don't want to become a test subject," Tavia said. "And I'm not letting you turn Evos into one either."
"Of course not," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I have no such intentions, you would be a partner, not a subject."
Should she believe him? If she weighed the situation in a matter of what she could gain versus what she had to lose, it seemed apparent she should agree. It would be nice, really nice, to know more about the sword if she wanted to use it for real, and Tavia didn't think Evos was going to be very forthcoming about the spells engraved on the sword. Even though he had told her to ask anything she wanted, he wasn't very forthcoming with information. She'd asked about the engravings on the sword, but he just claimed that he didn't know. She had no way of knowing if that was the case, or if there were things he just didn't want to share. Working with Abram might give her at least some of those answers. And at least, Abram wasn't one them—the Artificers studying null-auras. He hadn't even known what she was until she told him. He hadn't even been all that interested in her.
Despite that, despite all of that, she couldn't stop her hands from trembling and her breath from catching in her throat as she came to her decision.
"I got it," she said. "I'll work with you, as partners."